An Influx Of Asylum-Seeking Students — and a Community’s Response

Chelsea parents stepped up to welcome migrant families into their public schools, where some fear city-led efforts aren’t robust enough to keep up

| 04 Nov 2022 | 04:43

When Mario’s two children started school on Friday, October 14, they hadn’t attended a class since March — and that was in Colombia. Long before registering his son and daughter at P.S. 11, a public elementary school in Chelsea, Mario and his wife had made the decision to emigrate from their home country to the United States.

They first flew to Mexico, Mario, 20, told Chelsea News by way of Melanie Gomez, a P.S. 11 parent and volunteer who acted as a translator. They were fearful of the Mexican police, whom he described as “bad guys,” so when they crossed into the U.S. — on foot, walking through a river only deep enough to submerge their ankles — they surrendered willingly into ICE custody. In a sprawling detention center in El Paso, Texas, the family struggled to stay warm for two days under paper-thin foil blankets, similar to those given to marathon runners or used in emergencies.

Eventually came the offer of a free bus ride to Chicago, Illinois or New York City. For two more nights on the road, they were cold — and Mario’s partner, to whom he’s not legally married, had already begun to fall ill, along with her daughter (Mario is not the biological father of the children they raise together).

By the time they moved into the Stewart Hotel, on the corner of Seventh Avenue and West 31st Street, it would be almost two weeks before the children were enrolled at P.S. 11, one in fifth grade and the other in first grade. Neither speak English, but they’re so eager to be in the classroom that on Saturdays, Mario said, they ask: “Are we going to school tomorrow?”

In early October, Mayor Eric Adams declared an “Asylum Seeker State of Emergency.” The situation had been unexpected and was quickly shaping up to be unprecedented; over 17,000 asylum seekers, predominantly from Venezuela and other Latin American countries, had been bused into New York over the summer from Texas and Arizona, setting up the city to “surpass the highest number of people in recorded history in its shelter system,” the mayor’s office announced. “There is no playbook for this,” Adams said, projecting it would cost more than $1 billion in the current fiscal year to keep the influx of migrants afloat.

The wave of asylum-seeking families has since hit public schools, already up against budget cuts made as overall enrollment declined. While the city is now funneling more money toward schools taking on the majority of new students, it was local parent volunteers who eased the transition for immigrant families, registering their children for classes weeks into the start of the academic year.

A Rush of Students

Three weeks ago, Jeffrey Gardner, a parent of two P.S. 11 students, started a volunteer group at the local elementary school. The official start of the year, September 8 for public schools citywide, had come and gone. But Gardner felt troubled by the sight of immigrant families showing up to enroll their children, “in, you know, 45, 50-degree weather in flip flops and socks, and T-shirts, no coats,” he said. “It was really hard to see.”

Across the city, more than 5,500 students had been enrolled in public schools as of October 7 via “Project Open Arms,” a multi-agency effort to assist asylum-seeking families. By the end of the month, the Department of Education reported that the number of students enrolled in public school and living in temporary housing topped 7,200 (a DOE spokesperson said the agency does not collect data on immigration or asylum-seeking status).

“For years, we’ve had asylum-seeking families coming to New York City; we had never before faced a concerted and premeditated effort by governors to bus people into New York City without any warning or advanced preparation,” Chelsea Council Member Erik Bottcher said.

In the weeks and months since migrants have been transported to New York from states lining the country’s southern border, the city has scrambled to fulfill its legal obligation to provide shelter to those in need; in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, a number of hotels, including the Stewart Hotel, the Skyline Hotel and Row NYC, have been selected to be used as temporary intake facilities and living quarters, among 42 total citywide. Bottcher’s district, which includes Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and parts of Midtown, is now home to a “high concentration” of immigrant families bused to the city.

In a single day, on October 14, Gomez helped approximately 30 families enroll their children at P.S. 11. After escorting them from the Stewart Hotel, 11 blocks away, it took until 2 p.m., she said, to get through all of the registrations. Mario and his partner had enrolled their children the day prior, walking over to the school on their own.

“They had just the clothes that they were wearing,” Gomez said of the families. Aside from documents and any valuables, their possessions had been stripped from them upon crossing the border. “One family...their fifth-grade daughter was allowed to keep her glasses,” Gardner said. “But they confiscated the parents’ glasses, so they weren’t able to read any of the paperwork when they showed up to register their child for school.”

In total, he and Gomez estimated that 60 new asylum-seeking students joined the school, for which enrollment during the 2020-2021 school year exceeded 800, according to the DOE.

The volunteer effort has been spearheaded by at least 70 parents and extended family members. At the school, they’ve invited asylum seekers to “shop” for donated toiletries and clothes, from toothpaste to socks and underwear. An Amazon wish list has provided thousands of dollars worth of essential items, Gardner said.

Money and Resources

The city has also stepped in with a promise of additional financial support. On October 31, DOE Chancellor David Banks announced an investment of nearly $12 million into public schools, with those home to six or more new students in temporary housing set to receive $2,000 per each such student.

The money will bulk up academic and extracurricular programs and enable schools to better cater to “multilingual learners,” according to the DOE. “Each one of our kids, whether born in the boroughs or just arrived, deserves every resource we can provide,” Banks said in a statement.

But the allocation isn’t enough, according to Comptroller Brad Lander, who has called for the DOE to commit $7,000 per student instead. “We cannot wait until the mid-year budget adjustments to begin to hire the staff needed at schools that are seeing entire classes of new students arrive,” he wrote on Twitter earlier last month, calling for $34 million in “Fair Student Funding.”

In the City Council, work on “legislation and policy recommendations” is underway, according to a spokesperson. Bottcher, in addition to identifying a need for more Spanish-speaking teachers, noted requests for Spanish-language books in classrooms and libraries. He’s working with an array of schools in his district that have taken on new students, including P.S. 11, P.S. 33, P.S. 212, P.S. 51 and P.S. 111.

At P.S. 11, he attended an additional orientation that was held in October for those just starting the school year. Teachers, administrators and existing students have, by many accounts, worked hard to make new members of the community feel welcome. But meeting asylum-seeking students’ needs hasn’t been an easy feat. “The schools are not equipped,” Gomez said — particularly with regard to overcoming language barriers.

She’s taken on the role of a translator, helping parents navigate Social Security card applications and the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) system for taking advantage of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In the classroom, she’s gone so far as to comfort a new kindergarten student at P.S. 11 who was having a “meltdown” — she said “he calmed down right away” when she spoke with him in Spanish.

“It’s a difficult transition to go to a school where you have no idea what they’re talking about,” Gomez said. “If you know the language, everything is easier.” Her daughter has also spoken Spanish with her new peers.

Where’s the Coordination?

At P.S. 33, where approximately 80 asylum-seeking students enrolled in recent weeks, many of the same challenges have arisen. One teacher who speaks Spanish combined fourth and fifth-grade students to create a dual-language class and volunteers rounded up donations of clothing and personal care products, initially to distribute at the school and later to give directly to shelters, according to Robin Kelleher, a P.S. 33 parent and co-chair of the Community Education Council (CEC) for District 2’s admissions and diversity committee.

She’s led an effort to connect with other nearby schools via WhatsApp, but “grassroots” organizing, she told Chelsea News, has at times proven frustrating. In September, she heard rumblings about a number of asylum seekers expected to enter local schools and wanted to jump to action, preemptively. Instead, she was advised to hold off — and only received official notice that new children would be registering at P.S. 33 one day in advance.

“I was shocked by how little help we got from anyone higher up,” Kelleher said. P.S. 33’s principal and assistant principal, she explained, stayed hours after the end of the school day to help sort through donated items, and Kelleher texted Adams to inquire about extra support. “It’s too much pressure on a school,” she said.

Temporary shelters have been overseen by the city’s Department of Homeless Services and Acacia Network, a contracted nonprofit. But between the DHS and the DOE, there are “so many gaps” in aid for those in need of career advice or medical care, Kelleher offered as two examples. Bottcher posed the current strain as “another reminder of the urgent need to create more affordable housing.”

Since getting their footing in Chelsea, Mario and his family have been moved to a hotel in the Bronx. An EBT card issued to him a month ago still hasn’t been activated, he said, and he’s itching to find work. But for his son and daughter, school provides something less tangible: days to look forward to.

“For years, we’ve had asylum-seeking families coming to New York City; we had never before faced a concerted and premeditated effort by governors to bus people into New York City without any warning or advanced preparation.” Council Member Erik Bottcher